Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)
A: After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School. I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant. I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.
I began with a basic drawing class and liked it. I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color. Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad. I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.
After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work. Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.
Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium! At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.
While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties. I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve. This is a lifetime journey of learning. I hope to never know all there is to know.
Comments are welcome! Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.
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A: Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I don’t know what became of it.
I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League. The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane. I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time.
So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane. She taught me a valuable lesson: do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!
Comments are welcome!
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Q: You took classes at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA in the late eighties studying intensely with Lisa Semerad and Diane Tesler. How have these experiences impacted on the way you currently produce your artworks? By the way, I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of formal training in artistic disciplines could even stifle a young artist’s creativity. What do you think?
A: From studying with Lisa and Diane I gained an excellent technical foundation and developed my ability to draw and depict just about anything in soft pastel. They were both extremely effective teachers and I worked hard in their classes. I probably got my work ethic from them. Without Diane and Lisa I doubt I would have gained the necessary skills nor the confidence to move to New York to pursue my art career.
Needless to say, I believe developing excellent technical skills is paramount. Artists can, and should, go ahead and break the rules later, but they won’t be able to make strong work, expressing what they want, without a firm foundation. Once you have the skills, you can focus on the things that really make your work come alive and speak to an appreciative audience.
Comments are welcome!
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A: At the age of 33 I was a Lieutenant in the Navy, working as computer analyst at the Pentagon. I was very unhappy with my job. I began looking for something else to do and discovered The Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I enrolled in classes with Lisa Semerad, then spent the next two years developing my drawing skills using black and white media (charcoal, pencils, conte crayon, etc.).
After that I moved on to color media and began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler. During this time I was still in the Navy, working the midnight shift at the Pentagon and taking art classes during the day. I was a very motivated student.
After three years or so I was getting quite proficient as an artist, entering local juried shows, winning prizes, garnering press coverage, etc. Prior to my career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I really didn’t know how I could make a living other than by making commissioned portraits. I volunteered to run a weekly life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal.
I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. Over time I became skilled at making photo-realistic portraits. In 1989 I resigned from the Navy and have worked full-time as a visual artist ever since.
Comments are welcome!
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Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?
A: In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst. Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap. In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life. When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.
Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel. I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.
For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper. However, after about two years I became bored. I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!” Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted. I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.
Comments are welcome!
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